Last August, Greenpeace scientists announced that they had found extreme concentrations of microplastics pollution in the Sargasso Sea. The scientists discovered almost 1,300 fragments of microplastic, which is more than the levels found last year in the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Of note was that this pollution originates from single-use plastic bottles and plastic packaging.
It’s no question microplastics and single-use plastic containers are a hot topic when it comes to sustainability and protecting the environment. The hospitality industry, notorious for its waste, has been actively talking about how to be more eco-friendly and minimize waste for years. Now, it is doing something about it.
The hospitality sector, without question, significantly affects the environment in several ways. Water consumption, waste creation and distribution of plastic products (toiletries, water bottles, etc.) are among the biggest culprits. New standards across the board are aimed to lead to greener pastures.
The Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act was signed into law in April 2019, mandating 100% renewable energy by 2050. Hotels are already stepping up and implementing greener practices.
For example, Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel has incorporated a variety of features and practices, including filtered water to cut back on bottled water, energy-efficient air conditioning, daily utilities monitoring and more. Caribe Hilton recycles cardboard, uses eco-friendly cleaning products, and has switched to paper straws and to-go packaging. Finally, Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico also uses paper straws and containers and eliminated plastic foam. The hotel also recycles cooking oil and has a gray water recycling system for landscape irrigation.
“The natural beauty of Puerto Rico is one of the most unique and magical aspects of this destination,” says Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico. “The island has taken measures to ensure a sustainable path for the future, even committing to 100% renewable energy, and hotel partners have taken steps of their own, including specialized recycling programs, energy conservation efforts and food waste initiatives. This is not to mention the many ecotourism experiences available to our visitors, such as those centered on the farm-to-table movement.”
No More Minis
Large hotel companies are making a commitment to eliminating single-use plastics. Most recently, Accor announced in late January that it's removing individual tubes of shampoo, conditioner and bath gel from its 340,000 guest rooms. The company owns 40 brands including Fairmont, Ibis, Mondrian and Novotel, and this action is just one part of Accor's larger environmental initiative that includes getting rid of all single-use plastic items at its 5,000 properties.
Beginning in 2021, mini-size toiletries will be gone from 843,000 hotel rooms across InterContinental Hotels Group's global hotels. IHG, which owns Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Kimpton, announced the change in July 2019, and said in a corporate press release that it's the first major hotel chain to make the environmentally friendly change. The miniature products will be replaced with bulk-size versions.
“It’s more important than ever that companies challenge themselves to operate responsibly—we know it’s what our guests, owners, colleagues, investors and suppliers rightly expect,” said Keith Barr, CEO of IHG, in a news release. “Switching to larger-size amenities across more than 5,600 hotels around the world is a big step in the right direction and will allow us to significantly reduce our waste footprint and environmental impact as we make the change.
“We’re proud to lead our industry by making this a brand standard for every single IHG hotel. We’re passionate about sustainability and we’ll continue to explore ways to make a positive difference to the environment and our local communities.”
IHG reports that the company currently has an average of 200 million bathroom miniatures in use across its entire hotel estate every year, and this new effort will build on the company's ongoing commitment to minimizing waste. In late 2019, IHG removed plastic straws from its hotels, and it is using duvet and pillow covers made from 100% recycled materials in some of its rooms.
Marriott, too, announced a global initiative to replace miniature-size plastic toiletries with bulk-size dispensers, building off its 2018 plan concentrating on North America. Hilton has set a goal of halving its environmental impact by 2030 through recycling soap programs and eliminating miniature dispensers.
“In a world where too many children die of hygiene-related illnesses, Hilton and its soap-recycling partners are turning guest room waste into life-saving treasure,” said Katie Fallon, Hilton’s senior vice president and global head of corporate affairs, in a press release.
According to Mark Cooper, CEO of the International Association of Conference Centers, the association has offered its member venues Green Star Certification for more than 10 years. To benefit from this environmental initiative, IACC requires members to either subscribe for the first time or update their past adherence to the Code of Sustainability. The code is valid for two years, so renewal is required biannually, he says.
“Sustainability is not just about replacing plastic straws; it’s about wider venue operations, management and ethos,” Cooper explains. “Economic impact and social elements of our events and businesses contribute heavily to sustainability as well.”
He adds that the 2019 IACC Meeting Room of the Future report revealed that 44% of respondents believe ethical operations and sustainable practices will be one of the most important elements for venues by 2024.
“The meetings industry is doing many good things as it relates to hosting more sustainable meetings,” Cooper says. “However, we have recognized that there is more to be done, especially in championing best practice and providing knowledge to our membership. Our goal is to connect the dots, sharing creativity, while also walking the talk with our own events, as being a delegate at a sustainable event gives you valuable confidence to inspire others.”
What Meeting Planners Can Do
“There is an increased awareness throughout the events industry, from stakeholders and suppliers to agencies and end users, around all things sustainable,” says Annette Chinn, president and CEO of San Francisco-based streamlinevents. “As a result, more questions are being asked and more actions are being taken addressing areas that impact eco-friendly measures, such as carbon offsets for travel, more local sourcing of food and supplies, water conservation and eco-friendly supplies used in housekeeping."
Also, Chinn says, there is a movement for cities to provide better solutions for the collection of recyclable products both in hard waste and food waste, helping to divert the amount of product that goes to landfill. In this area, meeting planners can play an important role by making it known that this is an important aspect of selecting a city or a venue. This request—an economic lever, if you will—supports the impetus for a more robust effort to raise the level of sustainability for all events within a locale.
So what role do meeting planners play in the push for more sustainable meetings? First, says Chinn, they can start by creating their own questions to include in their RFPs to help identify sustainability practices of the venues they are sourcing. She adds that this has a dual impact in that it supports the demand for venues to engage and implement their sustainability efforts, while also helping planners to be champions of sustainability efforts for their companies.